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Beyond the summit

A family expedition to Big Sky turns into a father’s quest to manage his own expectations

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Snow choked the air and swallowed my skinny, traction-less skate skis with each step. The trail ahead launched up a mountainside, disappearing into a curtain of snow. I looked up through ice-encrusted eyelashes and called out, “You know we’re 2,000 feet higher than where we usually ski at Lolo Pass?” My wife and two young sons—Silas, 12, and Jonah, 8—were too busy kicking herringbone steps up the mountain behind me to answer.

In theory, this was a fun family ski to the high point of the Lone Mountain Ranch Nordic system, called The Summit. We’d tried to get there days earlier, but had been turned back by a similar storm. Rather than accept it as a teachable moment, I decided to try again, weather be damned, because of my irresistible attraction to high points—especially ones with alluring names like The Summit.

To keep the family’s spirits up in the face of the storm, I told them about the Donner Party and their turn to cannibalism to survive winter. Then I mentioned the Uruguayan rugby team from Alive whose plane crashed in the Andes.

“I want you guys to know,” I said with a grin, “that it’s highly unlikely we’ll have to eat anybody to survive up here.”

My wife Jacqueline flashed a perfunctory smile and then informed me that before agreeing to future family ski outings she would be looking at the map and consulting with me about our plans. Given that we hadn’t seen another human for hours and were currently trying to climb a high, snow-blasted mountain on skate skis, I couldn’t blame her. Jacqueline is game for almost anything, but she’s from Florida, and still getting used to this whole snowbound alpine world.

As we climbed onto an exposed shoulder of the mountain, she cried, “My god, there are even couloirs up here!”

I unsuccessfully choked back laughter and said, “Those are cornices, honey.”

Her glare told me it didn’t matter what they were called, and that I was failing as the family expedition leader. Admittedly, as a die-hard adventure hound, I was still figuring out the whole family thing. Heck, when I originally found out that Jacqueline—my sometime girlfriend, now full-time wife—was pregnant, I was somewhere in the American West living in a Volkswagen van lashed with skis, mountain bikes and ladders (I cleaned windows on apartment buildings to pay for my travels). Settling down, to the extent I’m capable of it, has been a fitful process.

Skiing in the mountains is one of my life’s great joys, and I’ve been eagerly dragging the boys with me since their necks could support their heads. I fervently hoped Silas and Jonah could experience that same joy. I’d like to think I’ve learned how to push them without pushing too hard. But as a gung-ho optimist with a tendency to underestimate the size of mountains and other important things, sometimes I blow it.

Like now, for instance. As my children pulled themselves through the storm behind me, I realized this arctic death march was sure to ruin skiing for them. They’d already been skiing for hours, and now they would turn on me at any moment, declare me a terrible father, and announce they weren’t climbing a foot farther. The problem was that we were miles of deep snow and thousands of vertical feet from civilization.

“Okay, fine,” I announced loudly and with a bit of showmanship. “If the snacks in my pack aren’t enough, you can eat one of my limbs. Preferably my left arm. But not a leg please—unless you’ve got the kind of deep-down hunger that an arm just won’t satisfy.”

It was the last day of our ski vacation in the greater Big Sky region, an area often referred to as Montana’s premier skiing destination. We’d come here four days ago to ski it for ourselves and stay at Lone Mountain Ranch, a high-end, historic guest ranch touted by Cross Country Skier magazine as the top Nordic ski resort in America. I’d been hearing about the ranch’s trail network since I moved to Montana 13 years ago, so when they offered to host us for a few days I figured it would make an idyllic family ski vacation, especially with Big Sky and Yellowstone just up the road. Plus, I’m a sucker for LMR’s specialty: log cabins with ski trails right to the doors.

After a lavish breakfast under the elk-antler chandeliers of the ranch’s dining lodge, we spent our first morning taking skate-skiing lessons on featherweight gear from the resort’s well-stocked Nordic center. We frequently tromp around the woods on our heavy Nordic skis with three-pin bindings back home, but flying along groomed trails on greased-lightning skate skis isn’t even the same sport. When the LMR folks dropped us off at the edge of the Big Sky Resort base area and told us we could skate the four miles back to the ranch on downhill-trending trails, I thought, yeah, we’re onto something here.

“What do you guys think about skate skiing?” I asked the kids as we glided down the silky trail. They were both pumping and poling across the snow like tiny racers on Red Bull.

”Awesome!” they cried in unison, without slowing down.

I could see we were going to have to buy skate skis. I’d always resisted it—we already had Alpine and classic Nordic skis, in addition to countless backcountry skis, and, seriously, how many pairs of skis can one family own? Apparently the answer—as with bikes, boats, maps, field guides, etc.—is “whatever you currently have, plus one.”

As we cruised along, trails branched off in every direction, all scrupulously signed. Caution signs marked the bigger downhills, where our “Woohoos!” rang out with the calls of chickadees as the trail plunged around hairpin turns and through babbling creek bottoms. Whoever says Nordic skiing isn’t exciting needs to ski trails like these.

A couple of hours later, Silas and I were herringboning up through six inches of fresh snow, with more falling like confetti on our shoulders. But there was no parade here, just a son following a father with suspect decision-making skills up a mountain. This was our first attempt at The Summit, that bewitching jewel that had caught my eye on trail maps that morning. Since we had planned only one day on LMR’s trails, I thought it would be our sole shot, so after our intro to skate-skiing we grabbed our touring gear and headed back out. Silas was the one person I could convince to join me, and then only with the promise of a long, super-fun downhill—which, at the moment, I was far from delivering.

About a mile from our goal, the snow deepening with every step, Silas pleaded, “Can we turn around now, Dad?”

I paused and sighed. But one thing I’d decided long ago was that I never wanted the boys to feel like skiing was an obligation. Which is why I called back cheerfully to Silas, “Sure we can turn around. Just give me a minute to go up a little bit higher.”

It’s an explorer’s addiction I have—it’s virtually impossible for me to turn around in the mountains. But if anything can make me do it, it’s my sons. So I did, and we bombed down a steep section, carving powder turns on spindly classic skis. It was indeed super-fun. But then came a long flat section in deep, sluggish snow, which, on our slippery toothpicks, quickly became decidedly un-fun. The ranch was miles away and I suddenly had visions of my patented after-dark, mountain boondoggles. I thought of Silas, who was already starting to complain, and grimaced.

“All we can do is keep skiing,” I said—before adding, “or we could drop down into the woods here and take a shortcut.”

I showed Silas the trail on the map and how we could cut off a series of switchbacks by dropping straight down the mountain. He resisted for a minute; he’d heard stories about my “shortcuts.” But the trees below us were invitingly gladed and the powder pristine, never mind that we were skiing on swizzle sticks and darkness was looming. After considering it for a minute, he agreed.

I smiled and dropped in, floating through powder for a few delicious seconds. Then one ski punched through a buried layer of crust and dove into the sugar beneath. My face-plant was spectacular.

“Dad, are you sure this is a good idea?” Silas called down, while I furiously tried to dig the snow out of my pants. What could I say? We were high on an unfamiliar mountainside, it was an hour before sunset, dumping Wheaties-size flakes, and I was sprawled in the snow like I’d just been dropped from an airplane.

“Well…” I said, pausing to determine what deep fatherly wisdom I, a person who rarely leaves home without a headlamp and emergency bivy, could summon. “It’s not a terrible idea.”

After a short pause, Silas said, “Okay,” and jumped into the deep snow. He was my son. He also was light enough, at 70 pounds, to stay on top of the breakable crust. He skied effortlessly past me, crying, “This is fun!”

He seemed to derive equally gleeful pleasure from watching me stuff my face in the snow another dozen times that evening before we made it back to the ranch just as darkness settled. After a white-tablecloth dinner of locally harvested steaks in the lodge, and a prolonged visit to the outdoor hot tub, the boys fell asleep in our cabin in minutes. As Jacqueline and I sat and watched flames lick the stone fireplace, I smiled thinking about how much fun the boys had had that day. It was almost enough to make me forget about The Summit. Almost.

By the time we left the dining lodge the next morning, the boys had stuffed half the contents of the meticulously constructed pastry display into every available pocket of their ski clothes. We were heading to Yellowstone for a guided ski with an LMR naturalist, and they were clearly determined to not starve in the wilderness.

After a 30-minute van ride, we began laying tracks across the pristine snow of the Upper Gallatin River Valley. Sitting on benches cut in the snow, we made hot cocoa at an overlook and watched the shifting clouds throw sunlight and snow showers across the sweeping valley and the pearly mountains beyond. I unsuccessfully tried to convince the kids to ski up an adjacent ridge. Drew, the naturalist, showed them where a weasel had chased a mouse. Then they wanted to turn around—much sooner than I’d planned. I was only temporarily perturbed. “Keep it fun, keep it fun,” I reminded myself. So we did, bombing hill after hill back to the van.

The hills of Yellowstone were a prelude to my big plans for the next day, when we drove the 10 miles from LMR to Big Sky. It was going to be epic—my family’s first day at Big Sky! The best big mountain skiing in the state! And we were going to ski as a family off the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak. We were ready for this. It would be a family triumph.

But then, on the chairlift, came the wind and snow. The light was flat, making it impossible to read the terrain. The kids complained about the cold. They were clearly more interested in the base area, which Silas had earlier compared to Disney World.

At first I was upset. This is Big Sky, people! But after some quality time stewing in the lodge, I settled down. Keep it fun, Teasdale, keep it fun. It was becoming my mantra.

Later, we eventually did make it onto the Lone Peak Tram, but only after Jacqueline, never a big fan of chairlifts, fought off panic on a disorienting ride through dense fog that unmoored all perception of ground and sky, up and down. The tram didn’t exactly help her relax. The boys were all twittering oohs and ahhs, while Jacqueline sat firmly gripping the bench. As our little metal box hanging on a steel cable swung disconcertingly close to the cliffs of Lone Peak, she cried, “We’re going to hit it!”

The peak itself was a wind-lashed world of white. Ski patrollers milled about preparing for their final sweeps down the mountain. I walked around the tram building to the edge of the mountain’s double black, south-side chutes. Below was only cloud and sandblasting snow, with no sign of anything you could put skis to. There was no way I could take my family down it—and there was no way they’d let me. They wouldn’t even leave the lee side of the tram building. We’d be riding that gondola right back down, and maybe that was adventure enough for this day.

I was feeling like a real pro at this family adventure thing. Apparently, all you had to do was continually give up when things got tough. It was starting to eat away at my very core.

That night, our last at LMR, we found ourselves riding in a horse-drawn sleigh to a log cabin where we would enjoy a gourmet rib dinner cooked over a century-old, wood-fired stove. But first the chef stood before the few dozen guests in the lantern-lit cabin to announce the menu and state: “We don’t think of vegetables as food here—we think of them as what food eats.” Then he led the room in a “non-denominational” prayer that started traditionally enough before suddenly turning into a skier’s plea. “The snow on The Summit was good, but it’s still a little skinny out there,” he proclaimed, before ending with a heavenly request for “Arctic fronts and moist Pacific air masses.”

Everyone laughed. A cowboy singer started to play. And we dug into our vegetable-eating food.

It was a merry evening, but as we rode back to our cabin in the sleigh—100-foot trees cutting black silhouettes out of the dome of stars overhead—I couldn’t stop thinking about that prayer. Why did he have to mention The Summit?

That’s when I decided we wouldn’t be driving back to Missoula the next morning. No, we were going to stay another day and ski as a family to The Summit. The kids, who loved LMR, were thrilled. The pastry chef, maybe not so much.

Which is how we found ourselves fighting our way up a snow-choked mountain talking about the Donner Party. We’d made the brilliant choice to wear skate skis, since we now loved them so much, even though they were blatantly the wrong tool for the job of breaking seven miles of trail. The Summit, that shimmering beacon of unattainable elevation, was supposedly only two kilometers away at this point, but as we flailed like seals on a Slip ’n Slide, it might as well have been 20.

That’s when it hit me. After all my efforts to rein in my instincts and keep this trip fun, I was driving us toward disaster. It was late in the afternoon, we still had a four-hour drive back to Missoula, and the kids had school early the next morning. I could see what I needed to do, and it was exactly what I’d been doing all trip. I needed to let go of The Summit.

Then, as if this very realization caused a cosmic shift, something incredible happened. I’d stopped on the trail to announce our abandonment of the summit bid when the high-pitched voices of the boys carried up to me—they were singing. A smile spread across my face. Sure, we were climbing a mountain during a winter storm on glaringly inappropriate equipment, but my boys were fine. They were at home out here. I felt like I’d just won the lottery.

Instantly, the plan changed again. I yelled to them that they were doing great and started breaking trail with new vigor. We were going for it, to heck with the weather, the deep snow, the late hour, and school. When they started dragging a bit, I offered them a reward if they made The Summit. Bribery has long been an effective tool in my parenting arsenal, and I wasn’t carrying a pack full of pastries for nothing.

Jacqueline looked at me with a bemused smile—wind blasting, high peaks emerging from the clouds, and said with a laugh, “I can’t believe our kids are skiing up here right now.”

“Shhhhh!” I said, “Don’t let them hear you say that.”

Finally, after furiously breaking trail for what seemed like hours, we made The Summit, elevation 8,320 feet. Between the trees, the snow, and the swirling clouds, there was no view whatsoever. It may have been anticlimactic, but fortunately we had pastries. I handed out chocolate croissants and lovely fruit-dolloped things, which we devoured in the fading light. I took a picture and everyone smiled genuine smiles. We’d done it. And now that we’d done it, even if we couldn’t actually see anything, it would never haunt my dreams again.

With precious little time to linger, I went first on the descent and carved a trough through the snow for the others to follow. I learned that if I kept my legs together and double-poled (instead of kicking-and-gliding), I cleared more snow and made it faster and more fun for the kids and Jacqueline. So I poled for all I was worth, the snow wedging in front of my shins as I plowed a path down the mountain.

The descent seemed to last forever, and the view gradually cleared as the fog sank into the valleys below in snaking rivers of cloud. A mountainside rose on our left and we stopped for a moment to admire its spires of rock stabbing the twilight. Across the valley to the south were the runs we’d skied at Big Sky, and beneath them lay the trail we’d skated our first day. The mountains of Yellowstone cut a serrated skyline on the distant horizon. It felt like a skiing wonderland, a world apart, and we were above it all, one family alone on a mountain.

Descending again, with just enough light to see, the trail steepened and we picked up speed, rocketing now, powder billowing around our legs. It was thrilling and beautiful, and it filled me with that familiar joy of mountain adventure. I let out an exuberant “Woohoo!” Two more pint-sized “Woohoos!” came from behind me. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

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